More than just drugs

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

Jose M. Montelibano

On a quiet Christmas Day, I read an interesting article on DILG Secretary Eduardo Ano saying that a “whole-of-nation initiative” is needed against illegal drugs. I know that many would think that government opinions on illegal drugs may sound either defensive or trite. The war on drugs has managed, among others, to polarize Filipinos and create a serious controversy called EJK (extra judicial killing). Personally, I have long been afraid that our country is inching towards a narco state situation. The suspected volume of the illegal drug trade is such that it can possibly be from the tens to the hundreds of billions. Translated to operations, that would involve not only common criminals but would necessarily include criminals in government service.

It may be that President Rodrigo Duterte has a better appreciation of the national drug trade and operations, with this more informed appreciation leading him to wage a relentless war against drugs. If we know the history of Colombia and Mexico, we have more than ample reason to be desperate ourselves. Decades of the illegal drug trade in those countries not only resulted in hundreds of thousands of drug-related deaths but the corruption of public officials in all branches of government. Violence had become such a common feature of societal life, so much so that in Colombia, it was a challenge to find anyone who did not have, or know of, a relative or friend killed because of illegal drugs. More than anything, this is what I fear for our country.

I know that the EJK issue has blown up to be a political, legal and social issue with religious overtones. It is not easy to bring up the matter and hope to expect objectivity. But a narco state is a possibility with grave consequences that Philippine society must find the courage and wisdom to address it in all kinds of settings. Filipinos must try to understand how it can affect all our lives and must develop the maturity to exchange and share options on what we can do. That is why I felt a strong burst of hope when I read the view of Secretary Ano that a “whole-of-nation-initiative” is needed. It is a refreshing message and most timely given while we are all in the Christmas season. A whole-of-nation-initiative is a miraculous idea that serves, not just the interest of President Duterte, but of all Filipinos if only it can be rolled out with collective acceptance and participation.

A drug scourge of national proportion does not become the paramount threat of a whole people from a vacuum. It evolves from a context that carries with it a host of problems. Illegal drugs may be the central focus of an aggressive government war but it still remains, at its core, a consequence of many other problems. There must be massive poverty. There must be social injustice. There must be economic inequality. And all these anomalies must be historical or have long beset a people. The Philippines, Mexico and Colombia all share this context. I hope that it is not only government that feels responsible in resolving the drug scourge because it cannot. What has risen from the ground needs the same ground to find correction.

If we are to believe the numbers that the government, including President Duterte, has been giving about the extent of the illegal problem, especially in the estimates of the millions of drug dependents, then we can extrapolate the number of families involved or suffering because a member is afflicted. The highest estimate I have heard is 4 million dependents – which means 4 million families affected or 20% of the population of families. Those numbers indicate that communities, not just persons or families, are the ones threatened. Drug rehabilitation programs are nowhere enough to effectively counter a problem so deep that families and communities themselves need rehabilitation. We need to understand what happened to communities, families and family members that they have succumbed to a serious threat against themselves. There is also a compelling question that has to be asked. Is the drug scourge the only threat that communities cannot protect themselves from?

Before drugs, what other threats did our communities face that they could not properly or effectively address by themselves? How did communities do against insurgency? How did communities fare against disaster? How did communities protect themselves against criminality? And, on their own, in a democratic country, How did communities address their poverty? These are simple questions and their answers are as simple as well. The fact is that our communities did not do well at all by themselves and had to keep calling higher authorities and capacities of LGUs and National Government in order to stave off the worst. All this push the obvious to our faces – that our communities, on their own, are mostly too weak to respond strongly or effectively against threats that perennially confront them.

It may have taken illegal drugs to awaken us to a more insidious and deeper problem – our fundamental inability to be our own first responders to threats that beset us. Can we imagine life where police or military forces are now able to reach us within short periods of time after we need them and ask for their help? But the reality is that police and military forces cannot attend to all of us when we need them. There are simply too many communities to spread themselves out if we ask for them simultaneously. Some of us will be reached on time, some will not until too late. And that is the story of the Philippines, especially the vast majority who have little resources and know-how in the face of adversity and threats.

If DILG believes that a whole-of-nation-initiative is necessary against the drug scourge, then I suggest that this initiative it may formulate may focus on empowering communities to face most if not all threats, and not just illegal drugs. After all, illegal drugs are not all we have to confront.

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